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The Hungry Ghosts

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The Hungry Ghosts

Postby Guest » Thu, 07 Jul 2005 12:54 am

Who are the Ghosts?

Several circumstances cause the kui to become dominant in one's soul, rendering him a hungry ghost. An improper burial, or none at all, is one factor. The burial represents the first stage in sending the ancestor to the underworld. If that task is left undone, the spirit is left homeless. Typically, this occurs when people are killed en mass, or executed, or die away from home and subsequently have been forgotten. Other spirits with descendents become ghosts because of anger. Perhaps they were violently murdered or unjustly executed and now long for vengeance.21

That some ghosts have descendants does create some problems: one's ancestor could be another's ghost. Wolf indicates that although most people would not admit that their ancestor could be a ghost to another, when hard pressed with examples many will admit the fact. Thus in some cases whether a spirit is a ghost or an ancestor depends very much upon one's perspective.22

In other cases, the system of filial piety itself contributes to the creation of hungry ghosts. Because worship is restricted to a junior paying homage to a senior, parents would abandon a child's soul rather than worship him. Thus a child who dies has no one to assist him in the afterlife, leaving him homeless, hungry, a kui. To rationalize the child's birth, many believe that such children were strangers in the world of the living and therefore compelled to leave. Likewise, a deceased unmarried daughter may never be worshipped, for only the husband's line and his wives may receive this honor. A woman who dies before marriage is allocated the undignified position of a ghost.23

The Afterlife.

The seventh month festival serves two objects: ancestors and ghosts. To understand the heart of the festival it is important to observe how ghosts and ancestors have come to be distinguished and accordingly treated. The distinction has a Taoist influence.

a. The Chinese Spirit

During the Hungry Ghost Festival the living show their concern for the dead. The Chinese concept of death and life makes participation mandatory for filial children. This concept emerges from the Taoist philosophical development of yin and yang: two opposing forces of which everything is composed. Yin is the force of death and yang of life, and these elements are at work within individual persons. As a man ages, the yin increases at the expense of the yang, and death marks the total separation of the two. The soul, however, also contains elements of both yin and yang. The former is called kui (demon) and the latter shen (spirit). At death the kui should return to the earth and the shen persist in the grave, family shrine and the other world. If, however, one's soul is not properly cared for, it will persist as kui and cause problems for the living. In popular practice, the kui are considered hungry ghosts thus, clearly, one's ancestor could only be shen. Because both continue to exist and interfere, the living must respond accordingly.12

IV. The Ancestors

Because ancestors persist after death as shen, the moral obligation to them never ceases. As all subordinates owe their elder kinsmen worship, respect and honor, this duty is passed down throughout the generations, with descendents accumulating more and more ancestors to worship. As the family line continues through the male, only-sons must maintain a strict worship lest the ancestors exist neglected.13

a. Assisting the Ancestors

Neglecting the ancestors is a serious matter. Because the Chinese spirit world bears striking similarity to the physical world, spirits have the same basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. As the spirit embarks from the grave he encounters two roads, one leads to the heavenly realms of the gods and the other to hell. The very exceptional few may ascend to godhood straight away, but most take the lower road. Soon they encounter a gate wherein several magistrates reside. There they have recorded the deeds of those in their allotted districts. This record is submitted to one of ten judges who determine guilt, punishment and reward. For those of extraordinary merit, passage to heaven may be arranged. Others who were good may be given positions in the infernal bureaucracy, or be permitted to reside in the judges' guesthouse, while others will be punished in various levels of hell. The underworld is further organized into ten kingdoms, which replicate the same cities, towns and villages extant in the world of the living. Souls go to the kingdom that corresponds to their sign of birth.14

Significantly, the distinct similarity between the world of the living and that of the dead requires that the dead also be provided with certain necessities. For this reason the practice of the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts provides great benefit to the ancestor. He is ensured of comfort with the bestowal of houses, cars and money, the latter being of great utility in bribing officials to escape punishment or to increase merit.15 Thus it is important for a filial son to participate in the festival -- indeed he is so obligated, that the lot of his ancestors may be improved.

b. Appeasing the Ancestors

The dead are thought to have some effect upon the living, and this provides another reason to observe the festival. Ancestors are primarily thought to bring aid and good fortune; however, should they be neglected, they may cause trouble. Sociologist Arthur Wolf reports that most Chinese villagers he encountered would not readily admit that an ancestor would inflict punishment. Yet should "they suffer a series of misfortunes, most people give serious consideration to the possibility that the ancestors are responsible."16 For instance, consider a man who, upon becoming a Christian, abandoned ancestral practice altogether. Both he and his father died the following year. "It's not a good thing to become a Christian and neglect the ancestors."17 Furthermore, shamans often attribute tragedy to neglected ancestors.18 Hence, Lucy Tan perceives that no matter how benevolent the ancestors are in theory, the prime motive for worship is fear.19 But, traditionally, if an ancestor acts aggressively, it is with good cause. Neglect could mean increased suffering for them, should they consequently become hungry ghosts.

c. Honoring the Ancestors

Given the filial duty of honoring, assisting and appeasing the ancestors, the fifteenth day of the seventh month is of particular importance, having been apocryphally prescribed by Buddha as a day particularly honoring to one's ancestors. Families offer fruit, cookies, cakes, candies, rice, sprouts, lotus, noodles and favored foods, placing them on the altar in the home, which serves as a shrine to the ancestors and gods. On the evening of the fourteenth day, families worship the ancestors with specially prepared dishes of meat and vegetables, wine and incense. They kowtow several times before the altar and present "hell money" (the Bank of Hell's currency), clothing, houses and other items of value in the underworld - all made of paper - by burning them in a large container placed outside the home. For those who can afford it, priests may be hired to chant the sutras to petition the gods and by so doing further assist the ancestors.20

V. The Hungry Ghosts

While the needs of the ancestors are specifically addressed, the Chinese must remain conscious of the presence of the second object of the seventh month festival.

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